Why Seeing Black and White is Needed (maybe more needed than Bill Arnold thinks) [pt. II]

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Bill Arnold about his new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over SexualityGo to that interview to see more summary of the book and Dr. Arnold’s thoughts about it.

Last week, I shared Part I of this review, with four things I love about Seeing Black and White.

This part concludes my review.

seeing black whiteI said in Part I of this review that I had one disagreement with Dr. Arnold and that he had changed my thinking about one aspect of the sexuality debate in a way that I don’t think he intended.

Is the biblical debate really settled?

My disagreement with Arnold is about the state of the biblical debate. I’ll summarize his presentation first, then explain my disagreement.

Citing Christopher Seitz, Arnold says that we “have seen three separate and distinct phases in the church’s understanding of Scripture [on the issue of homosexuality]” in the past forty years.

He describes phase one as a time for reevaluating biblical passages on same-sex practices. Perhaps these passages had been misunderstood and misread. Maybe they didn’t condemn ordinary same-sex practices. Maybe these were addressing particular problems in particular cultures.

He describes phase two as a time when people realized the phase one arguments didn’t work. They accepted that “[t]he Bible really is consistently negative toward same-sex practices.” Instead, people in this phase pointed to things like the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as a model. If those church leaders could agree to accept Gentiles as converts without requiring circumcision, why couldn’t we make a similar move now regarding same-sex practices?

Finally, Arnold describes phase three––our current reality––as a time when people see the Bible as irrelevant on this issue. It isn’t able to take into account the newer development of “monogamous faithful homosexuality.” In this phase, supporters of same-sex intimacy simply regard the Bible as “a book of religious development, from one Testament to the next” [quoting Seitz]. But we’ve gotten past those points of development in our “enlightened modern times.”

Because of this, Seeing Black and White approaches the discussion about homosexuality as if the biblical debate is already settled. Arnold confirmed as much in our interview: “the church isn’t listening to the scriptural evidence anyway.” As a result, he focuses on showing why we should heed the scriptural evidence. He largely assumes that we already have agreement about what the scriptural evidence shows––an unqualified condemnation of homosexual practice.

From the discussions I’m hearing, I’m not sure this is an accurate read of the current climate. I see a lot of discussions that Arnold would call “phase one.”

I see a lot of people suggesting that the few mentions of homosexuality in the Bible were about particular problems in those cultures. Several people have asked me if Paul’s references to homosexuality weren’t just as culturally specific as his references to women wearing head-coverings in worship.

I wouldn’t give the book to anyone having those conversations and asking those questions. I think it starts by assuming answers to questions they’re still asking.

To be fair, Arnold doesn’t neglect this discussion entirely. He has an excellent example, showing Old Testament and New Testament writers at a roundtable discussing ethics. While many topics show progress and “deeper formulations” in the movement from earlier to later writings, the discussion of same-sex practices has a flatline consensus around the table. For my friends who aren’t yet convinced about the biblical position, they’ll need to see a lot more like that discussion.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Arnold’s position that the Bible is consistently negative toward same-sex practices. I just don’t agree with him that everyone else is convinced of that.

As he said in the interview, there are already some great resources that deal with this. Arnold cites Richard Hays’s excellent essay on Homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament along with Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice and Richard Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh. His roundtable example recalls William Webb’s argument in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

It may be too much to ask one little book to rehash all those arguments and advance the discussion. Just know that Arnold’s work can’t stand on its own. It stands on the conclusions already made in these resources.

For anyone who doesn’t come to the book already agreeing that “the Scripture clearly condemns same-sex practices,” I think it would be better to start with one of the resources linked above. If those convince you, then move on to Seeing Black and White.

How Seeing Black and White changed my mind in a different way than intended

In our interview, I shared this quote from the book: “[I]t can be argued that the church failed to influence culture in the 1960s, losing its voice and failing to condemn nonmarital sexual practices of all kinds.”

That quote has continued to ring in my head. The United Methodist Church’s statement on human sexuality says, “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

Dr. Arnold has convinced me that conservative leaders in the UMC have no right to a voice on homosexuality until they demonstrate a consistent voice on heterosexual sex. Among our leaders, ministry candidates, and ordained clergy, I suspect that most violations of our standards for human sexuality are heterosexual, not homosexual. Are we taking these as seriously?

If your church’s standards for membership, leadership, or employment treat homosexual and heterosexual indiscretions differently, you’re not taking a stand for holiness, you’re discriminating.

Until your Board of Ordained Ministry will just as quickly ask and remove someone from candidacy for having sex with his girlfriend as for having sex with his boyfriend, you have no justification for your position. This is to address only our beliefs on human sexuality. Perhaps we could go further, but we must go at least this far.

Maybe I’m wrong about this and we’re already taking seriously all issues of sexuality. But I’ve seen enough to believe that we have a double standard that turns a blind eye to many heterosexual indiscretions while railing against any hint of homosexual practice. This is indefensible.

If this is true, I think we’re fighting the wrong fight. We need to get back to a serious stance on heterosexual sexuality first, or we need to give up the whole sexuality debate at once. To fight for a hard-line stance on homosexual practice after we’ve given up that stance on heterosexual sex is hypocritical. We have no right to be taken seriously so long as we’re double-minded on this.

Perhaps Dr. Arnold would agree with all of this. If so, I would have loved to see more ink spilled on our “heterosexual problem.” But this may be again asking one small book to do more than it should have to do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Though I’ve listed two issues here that I would have liked to read more about, as Part I of this review showed, I eagerly recommend this book to most people. Check it out at the Seedbed publisher website.

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